Champagne Dreams and Birthday Wishes
4 sparkling wines, 2 Cork Dorks
Sometimes I wonder what normal people do with their best friends for their birthdays. Last weekend was my annual birthday trip to Philadelphia to spend two days with my best friend- the real bitch (oh, and real Somm) behind this Somm Bitch. We’ve been friends since we were five and the fact that we have both somewhat randomly found this amazingly complex world of true cork-dorkiness is another testament to the concept of platonic soulmates. His birthday also happens to be the day after mine, so we always get together for a weekend to do something fairly epic. This year we were going to taste the best sparkling wines made in America, 6 different bottles.
And that is how I ended up, on Friday afternoon driving to South Philly. I was in my always messy Mini and had Season Three of my current podcast obsession (My Dad Wrote A Porno- seriously, go, listen. It’s good) plugged in and tons of seltzer water to get me up 95. When I was an hour from Philly I texted Bestie: “1 hour out, it’s birthday weekend so I expect to be greeted with a glass!”
As usual, he did not disappoint- I found him cleaning up a flute he dropped on the floor at my arrival. (Don’t worry, it was empty, no champagne was wasted or harmed). Now we could open the bottle- a 2005 vintage champagne from Michel Jacquot. Bestie explained to me it was a grower Champagne from the Aube subregion.
Spoiler: it was delicious. He explained to me Jancis Robinson’s take on the 2005 vintage. Apparently she thought it was “lackluster due to variable conditions that year, but amazing weather leading right up to harvest ensured ripeness but kept acidity on the lower side.”
My take? I sipped it, I sniffed it, and I tried to parse it. My first reaction was just how heavy on yeast it was, but luckily I love that in a good champagne. The scent of rising sourdough was almost a too much to get anything else at first… and then, wow, once I did move past it it really blossomed. I got flavors of lemon curd, caramel apples (green Granny Smiths at that), and a tiny bit of hazelnut. Bestie got the caramel apple, but he also kept talking about pastry dough- leaving us NO choice but to keep sampling until we had both seen each other’s points. Thank God we were heading to a MORE than substantial dinner.
The Four Wines
Saturday at 10:30 in the morning, we are ready to get serious. After multiple viewings of Somm, we wanted to test our blind tasting skills. To that end, he set up our strange, but decadent, challenge. We had four bottles of domestic sparkling, all Methode Champenoise, all in the $20-30 range. Ok, four champagnes- we can do this, right? We wrap them up in those cool velvet bags where you can’t see anything about them. Now, just as I think we’re ready to get started, he decided we needed to “benchmark” against the ultimate sparkling: Tattinger. Tattinger is perfect, it would remind us of the ideal we were looking for.
I love Tattinger, Nectar of the Gods. Even the non-vintage is some of the best champagne I’ve ever put in my mouth. It’s a bit heavy on the yeast- that’s all you can smell in the minute after you open the bottle. But, after a while, those aromas began to mellow and I started to get notes of lemon zest, cream, honeysuckle, toasted hazelnut and maybe some unbaked apple pie. Essentially, it was pure heaven in a glass.
Now it was time to move on.
A Blind Tasting Experiment Begins
Let’s be very clear, this is a strange kind of blind tasting we’re doing- we’re trying to see if based on look, flavor, nose, etc. we can figure out WHICH bottle is which- from which region/producer does this come? The four sparkling wines:
- Argyle Brut Willamette Valley, NV ($25.99)
- Roederer Estate Brut NV ($26.99)
- Schramsburg Mirabelle Brut MV ($27.99)
- Tattinger Domaine Carneros 2013 ($28.99)
Before we got started tasting, I suggested we wait to read the reviews of these wines. I thought it would be better to taste and to form our own opinions, before being influenced by what the pros thought.
The Reviews Are In
And that was how we began, starting with bottle 1, Roederer Estate Brut NV, and it was delightful. Frankly, I though the color was too pale for me to think it was the Vintage wine, but there were notes of dried fruit. (There was SO much back and forth as to WHAT that fruit was, I think we settled on mango). Next, I tasted bread, but a batter bread, not a dough. Consequently, I didn’t really get any minerality. I had no sensation of licking chalk or limestone, but it was definitely elegant and complex. And then, when it ended, it was well-balanced, not too acidic, and had a long, lovely finish. We originally thought “This is the multi-vintage (where they mix in small amounts of the best vintages with the lesser vintages for a real layering effect)… until we tried #4, then it became pretty obvious.
Next up for us was bottle #2, theTattinger Domaine Carneros, and I have to say, it stopped me in my tracks- it was just so light, I had to make sure he hadn’t tricked me and slipped a Prosecco in there. It was exceptionally light, ALMOST more frothy than bubbly, it had a strong nose of blossom, lemon curd, Bosc pear… but also a relatively light taste. This was ethereal- living in the upper registers of our sinuses, just floating- like in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when they’re just ingesting bubbles and floating on them. I could almost taste the flavor evaporating on my tongue as it soared to the top of my mouth. Obviously, given the flavor, nose and pale straw color, it’s NON vintage.
Next was bottle #3, Argyle from Willamette, OR was a different beast entirely. This one reminded me of true, legit, straight-up Champagne. It wasn’t dead on necessarily, but the nose had briney qualities. It wasn’t like a day at the beach, it was more evocative of memories of being near the water when it’s storming, eating pots of mussels or oysters. There was some sourdough bread rising both on the palate and the nose, some toasty, nuttiness (I’m going with Hazelnut) while still having plenty of baked red apple and baking spice.
I sipped more, I didn’t want to put it down. I started to wonder if there was some anise, but that felt like a fairly pretentious bridge too far. Then, at the very end, it reminded me of the smell of the wet limestone on my parent’s patio after a severe summer storm… it all came together in a visceral and compelling way. Given the flavor, the legs, the color, etc.- I was pretty positive this was from Oregon (Argyle).
And finally, we had bottle #4, Schramsburg Mirabelle Brut MV was pretty Champagne-esque… but didn’t check the right boxes for me. It lacked any kind of yeast/nut flavor. There was stone fruit, some pronounced minerality, delicate Meyer Lemon.. it was gorgeous- Champagne-adjacent. While I very much enjoyed sipping (and eventually, to be honest, guzzling), it still didn’t evoke feelings of Versailles, of velvet, of oysters nor caviar. It didn’t make me want to revolt or put on a beret. Basically, it was good, just good, it was not perfection.